This is Not My Nose: Revisiting Cyrano de Bergerac
Brian Ferguson and Jessica Hardwick discuss the newest Citz production, their revival of Edwin Morgan's translation of Cyrano de Bergerac
It’s often said that in order for you to know where you’re going, you need to look back. For Glasgow's Citizens Theatre, recently decamped to their new temporary home of the Tramway while their long-awaited redevelopment is completed, their first play since the move is no exception.
A co-production between the Citz, the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh and the National Theatre of Scotland, their revival of Edwin Morgan’s translation of Cyrano de Bergerac – Edmond Rostand’s famous tale of unrequited love and one hell of a big nose – is a comfortingly familiar piece restaged for a new generation in the 21st century, with costumes by Pam Hogg. Written entirely in verse, it’s an enduring tale of love, war and a man with an enormous hooter, with a talent for words.
Morgan's translation was first staged in 1992 by Communicado, with Tom Mannion in the title role, wearing a realistically bulbous beak. Dominic Hill’s revival sees Brian Ferguson take the coveted main role of Cyrano, the eponymous multi-talented wordsmith, riddled with self-doubt thanks to his larger than life schnoz.
“I think he is interesting in his contradictions,” explains Ferguson of his role as the swashbuckling romantic. “Extremely intelligent but often his own worst enemy; a lover yet very much a fighter; a despiser of pomp and yet a huge show-off.”
Originally written in 1897, Rostand’s play finds the eponymous Cyrano deeply, inescapably in love with his cousin, Roxane (played in the new Citz staging by Jessica Hardwick). Although he is a very well-respected poet and soldier, his confidence is rocked by his aforementioned nose. Believing that Roxane will reject him because of this stupendous appendage, he joins forces with the handsome but dim Christian, who is also in love with Roxane. Cyrano writes love letters to woo her, Christian pretends they were from him, and Roxane unwillingly falls for the wrong man. Of the play, Hardwick explains: “It’s a story about love. The need to love and be loved is timeless and something we can all relate to.”
While Cyrano de Bergerac is a classic love triangle, with the addition of themes about confidence and self-worth the story has endured, reappearing time and time again in various new translations for the stage from writers such as Anthony Burgess and Tom Gallagher. Meanwhile Cyrano has also made the transition to the big-screen, with famous film adaptations such as the 1987 Steve Martin comedy Roxanne, and, perhaps most famously, the multi-award winning 1990 French film adaptation starring Gerard Depardieu keeping the tale alive.
But why has Rostand’s creation proved so popular? For Ferguson, it’s because the play is the whole (theatrical) shebang. "It’s got everything," he says. "Its characters are conflicted, compromised, true. It has such room for theatricality and fun, yet it’s set against a backdrop of love and war. Most of all it is, I think, a compelling glimpse of what it is to be human.”
Perhaps Cyrano, with his unusually large nose, represents that innate sense of self-doubt that plagues many people, and his embarrassment speaks to our need to be accepted as we are. While Communicado’s original production made Cyrano’s oversized nose appear as lifelike and fleshy as possible, the Citz production sees Ferguson don a much more stylised, and obviously fake nose. Made of dark material, and fixed on to his ears by shoelaces, it’s a stylised, almost alien piece. Director Dominic Hill appears to be at pains to point out that the nose, and perhaps even Cyrano’s opinion of it, is as removed from reality as possible. After all, no human being would have a nose like this one.
“Other directors try to hide or gloss over the mechanics of production, in order to present an audience with a more ‘believable’ world," explains Ferguson. "Dominic really enjoys a different approach so, for example, with the nose the audience can all see it’s not real.
“I love it because it feels like a real celebration of theatre. We have Hollywood films to make fictional worlds look and feel utterly believable. Theatre is different – it’s about people coming together in a room to share a story. Showing the cracks rather than trying to paint over them is, for me, often more interesting.”
For many people, the pull of the original Communicado production was Morgan’s ‘gallus’ verse, which seemed to merge with and lift the play in a way that not many people could have possibly foreseen, let alone Rostand. Translated from English into Scots, specifically Glaswegian Scots, Morgan’s script was and still is a joy to read and hear.
“There’s a fantastic amount of panache in the original play that translates beautifully into Glaswegian and Scots," says Ferguson. "Rostand’s Cyrano was a lover and a fighter, full of self-deprecating wit and bucket-loads of swagger. Glasgow isn’t short of characters like that! Besides, Morgan’s language is so full of beauty and wit, it’s a treat.”
Hardwick agrees: “The language is raw, clever and funny. The verse in Scots sings out through the show and its rhythm beats like a heart which drives the language and the story along.”
But when it comes to the story, it is, essentially, about two men lying to a woman in order to make her fall in love with one of them. While there is no malice in what either man is doing, something about the plot seems a little off in our post-#MeToo society. Is Cyrano de Bergerac a play about manipulation, or is it simply an old-fashioned love story?
“I think it’s both," Ferguson explains, "particularly when we stage the story today amid the vital conversations being had around gender equality and toxic masculinity. That said, we aren’t making a version that examines it through either one of those frames. We’re telling the story as it is written. It is up to each audience member what they take from it. It could definitely make for some lively post-show discussions though.”
For Hardwick, the conversation is less about toxic masculinity and more about what falling in love with someone can make people do in order to feel that love in return.
“I think love makes us do extreme things," Hardwick says. “I don’t know if either of these men mean to manipulate Roxane but they both love her, and this drives them to act as they do.”
Both men, it seems, are victims of their own limitations; Cyrano is talented but lacks confidence, while Christian is beautiful, but unable to express himself. Together, they can combine their skills and their looks in order to create the perfect man for the woman they both love, a woman who, it seems, ends up loving them both in return.
“They both want her love, however, the other has what the other wants," says Hardwick. "Cyrano has wit and words and Christian has good looks.
“Individually they don’t feel that they could win Roxane’s heart, but combined they are perfect. However, as the story progresses Roxane realises that it’s the inner beauty that she is in love with, not the shallowness of the outer beauty that she once loved – she falls in love with the soul of Christian (which is in fact Cyrano).”
Cyrano de Bergerac, Tramway, Glasgow, 1-22 Sep, various times; Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 12 Oct - 3 Nov, various times.